“I Always Miss Having the Big Tube Amp” – an Interview with Trioscapes / Between the Buried and Me Bassist Dan Briggs

Trioscapes aren’t an easy band to pin down. I mean, there’s three of them and you only have two hands. You’d better take them on one by one or bring six friends. Hell, even listening to their music is a challenge. I doubt you expected a jazz/metal fusion project led by Dan Briggs to be easy listening, so hopefully you’ve come prepared for opuses that leave the kid gloves at home. This is exhausting stuff, but in the best possible way, like running a 5K that lets you dive through a Slip N’ Slide every couple of blocks. And I mean the “exhausting” part literally. Saxophone/flute player Walter Fancourt has been known to use the entirely of the available oxygen in the room by the time a live performance concludes. Briggs and drummer Matt Lynch probably bring spare tanks. I probably should have asked about that.

But scuba gear aside, I did get a hell of a lot of info out of Dan Briggs, a man you may also know as the provider of bass guitar for a little group called Between the Buried and Me. We bonded over our love of backbreakingly heavy tube amplifiers, ditching the click track, and surviving whatever gear situation an overseas gig sticks you with.

Trioscapes’ new record, Digital Dream Sequence, is out today, August 19th, on Metal Blade Records. It includes the 2nd best song ever to be titled “Stab Wounds.” I’m sure that even before you read the following interview you’ll be chomping at the bit to pick it up, so why don’t I just provide you with the link to order it right here. Happy now? Can we move on with no more fidgeting on your part? Excellent. Let’s begin.

Gear Gods: So the Trioscapes record is coming out pretty soon, right?

Dan Briggs: Yeah, it’s coming out August 19th on CD, and then I’m actually releasing the vinyl myself, probably a month after that.

So you have your own vinyl label?

Well, it started with the first Trioscapes record, when I was talking to Brian Slagel at Metal Blade about the project and the idea of releasing it. I really was passionate about wanting to release the vinyl myself and he was totally into it. So that was my first foray. I did a tour-only live EP for us as well. So [this is] the third release. It’s kind of fun.

Were there any production-related learning experiences with releasing the vinyl, or did everything go smoothly?

No, everything went super-smoothly. I was really pleased. It’s interesting to be on the other side of this sort of situation. For the last 10 years I’ve been releasing records with Between the Buried and Me, and my other band Orbs, and now Trioscapes. And you never know what the real price breakdown is, how much each actual unit costs. Being hands-on with it all, it’s incredible, and being able to recoup all the profits ourselves, off that. It allows us full freedom to do whatever we want: packaging, really anything. It’s really great.

So I was reading that with the first Trioscapes [record] you were still feeling out the sound of the band and the dynamics of everything. You had mentioned, in an interview I think, that this new one felt like more of a fully-formed band, conceptually.

I think the thing that we really knew was what it was like playing together, and what it was like playing live. There’s an energy that really comes out of playing live with your music that we hadn’t felt before, recording the first record. It’s something where the songs are more intense live; we play around a lot more with dynamics live. The quiet parts get really quiet, and the really off-the-wall, really rocking stuff gets to an insane point where we can’t really breathe on stage. Walter especially, blowing his brains out on the saxophone; it’s incredible. When we’re done playing we’ll literally see him gasping for air, you know? So I think we wanted to actually get that across on CD. To that degree we actually did the end of the song “Hysteria” – it ends with us just going full blast. We left this kind of exhale that Walter did and it’s the last thing that you hear on that track, which is kind of fitting, and a testament to what we were trying to achieve with the record, for sure.

Obviously the band has a lot more space, fewer instruments than Between the Buried and Me. Did you tailor your sound on [the Trioscapes records] since you have more breathing room? Or do you have one core tone that you use [in both bands]?

Oh, Trioscapes it totally different. I use a different bass. It’s still a Spector bass but it’s one of their Euro models. PJ at the company brought it out to me long before Trioscapes was even remotely an idea. I fell in love with it. The zebrawood finish on it is gorgeous. It really has a different sound than the NS-2005 basses that I was playing since I was 16. It’s more biting and it really comes alive when you put the Tube Screamer on it, or any sort of fuzz or distortion. That’s kind of defined my sound for Trioscapes vs. Between the Buried and Me where I don’t like hearing any clacks or clanks or anything. I like it to be very smooth. One of my biggest bass inspirations was Tony Levin of King Crimson. He was getting that sound on a Stick or a Warr guitar. That’s always kind of been what I was going for: a little beefier sound than that, but that kind of smoothness in Between the Buried and Me. But I use a very small array of pedals in Between the Buried and Me. I’ve always used a delay here or there, the Tube Screamer sometimes. But in Trioscapes I have two pedalboards going: one that’s 3 or 4 different fuzz and distortion pedals, and then I do a lot of looping. Being the three of us, [we’re] trying to create as much sound as possible, and a big part of that is trying to create other layers with a looper, which is… it was new to me, for sure, before starting Trioscapes. It was highly stressful for a while, going to shows and figuring it out, exactly. When’s the right time to cut a loop on and off? I’m much more comfortable with it now, but it’s a much bigger palette than BT-Bam, for sure.

Do you know what the differences between your Euro bass and the US one are? Different preamps? Different pickups? Just a different wood?

It’s different wood. My NS-2005 is just a monstrous beast of maple. It’s 3 pieces. It’s so heavy, and I’m such a little guy, and my shoulders are always wrecked, my neck is annihilated, but I just love the sound of it. And the Euro bass that I’m using in Trioscapes is zebrawood on the front, and I believe it has a maple neck. But it’s a much lighter bass. There’s a lot less wood on it. It’s cut away on the back more, for sure. It’s really sleek. It’s really great. One thing that was annoying to me at first is where the body meets the neck up high, you can’t easily get your highest 4 or 5 frets. That’s why I didn’t use it with Between the Buried and Me at the time. And now it’s something that I don’t really notice. I have to go a little harder on that bass. In Trioscapes I’m playing lots of leads, all kinds of stuff. I’ve kind of come to terms with that aspect of the bass. But it’s awesome. To me, it’s all about the sound of it.

The looper that you’re using with Trioscapes, is that on your pedalboard, also going into your amp? Or are you sending it straight into the PA? Do you have any interesting routing going on there?

Not really. The pedals go right into the Sunn 300T, which has been my staple amp for the last decade. I found another one recently that was in pristine shape, and these amps haven’t been made since the ‘80s. It looked like it had never been played, so I was very thankful for that. But I run a Radial DI, usually, for the sound or whatever.

How do you approach your EQ with distortion? Because I’ve always found that on bass I need either an active EQ or a blend knob to maintain the low end.

Well, there’s different tricks we’ll do in the studio. Live, my sound is more about… well, I try to approach it more as just being loud and grindy. I feel like, during those moments I’m not really trying to retain the smooth, round bass sound. I definitely have pedals that I could use to just add some grit, but I like just going hard getting it as gnarly as possible. I’ve been beefing it up live on our last couple tours with the bass Big Muff pedals for certain parts, which sounds incredible. For leads I’ve actually been using the EBS Billy Sheehan pedal which has a clean knob on it. Obviously it’s Billy’s pedal, it sounds incredible simply said. It would cut through anything on Earth, I swear to God. It’s the sharpest, gnarliest sound. In the studio we’ll do things like re-amping with a clean sound or something, and blending the two for certain parts. At that point, when you’re doing re-amping in the studio, you’re kind of looking at where things are sonically with the mix, as is, and if parts need a little boost or if it’s missing some low end or something. You can mix in some of that clean sound. Or if it’s a super-gnarly part we mixed in some of the Big Muff, stuff like that.

Did you wind up doing any other interesting tone experiments in the studio? Or was it mainly just your staple pedals and sounds, with a little re-amping here and there?

Um… I’m trying to think… We did on saxophone. We really went to town. Walter was using one of the… oh shit, what was it called… VoiceLive? I think it was the VoiceLive 2, by TC Helicon. It’s like a vocal processing pedal. We got it not really knowing how it was going to react to saxophone, and it ended up sounding incredible. We had a lot of fun just experimenting with that, seeing what worked and didn’t work. And some of the things that didn’t work kind of made it on there, because they produced insane sounds sometimes. We have the full spectrum in our music, where we’ve got really densely composed stuff that is melodically 100%: you can’t really deviate from the scales and the things that are going on in there. And then there’s other stuff that’s just atonal insanity. So sometimes those imperfections in the effects really sounded awesome. But for me, it was really keeping the same setup, and going between different basses that I had—the Euro, and then I had one of my signature Spector basses, which is essentially modeled after the NS-2005 that I’ve been playing forever, and some effects that I didn’t own. I used an [Electro-Harmonix] Freeze pedal for one thing. It was pretty neat. I don’t think I’d use that pedal live, but it was really cool for the part that we were doing in the studio. It was basically just holding out a tremolo’d note that generated the tone without actually hearing the attack. You just kind of got “buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-wuh.” I hope you can find some way to put that sound into the interview.

Eh, I’ll probably figure out some way to type it.

[laughs] Yeah, I experimented with pedals in the studio. I used a bass wah a little bit. I’d never use that live but it was definitely cool in the studio.

You guys tracked some of [the new record]… um, tracked, and some of it live, right?

Yeah. That was definitely something different too. We were just really feeling, after rehearsing some of this stuff, that… we did the whole record to a click track, pretty much, pretty much the full thing, because that’s what differentiates us from just being a jazz band: that our drummer has a background in rock and metal and progressive rock and whatever. That precision is important to us. But it was nice to have four or five moments where we really opened it up and got to do quite a few takes of things, and to be able to go back and really listen. Because when you’re playing like that, you’re outside of yourself, and what you’re doing, and kind of focusing in and trying to bounce off of what the other two guys are doing. It was nice to be able to capture that a little bit. Some of those parts are my favorites on the record because I don’t remember exactly what was happening in them. They sound a little different than the rest of it.

Did you wind up turning off the click for those moments?

Oh yeah, no click. Just straight vibing and hoping it worked when we moved it into the song. [laughs]

Did you have those parts planned out, like you knew which parts you wanted to feel out in the studio? Or was it the kind of thing where you laid it down [tracked] and then thought, “I want this to sound more live,” and you made the decision on the spot to do it?

There was at least one part, that’s at the end of the last song, “The Jungle.” “The Jungle” is a long song. It’s like 15 minutes long, and there’s definitely a finale in the song, and there’s a free section before the finale happens. I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I hadn’t envisioned what it might sound like. But basically it was bringing the whole 12 minutes or whatever before it to a close before the finale started. So that’s when I was using the freeze pedal and creating that kind of tremolo drone and volume swells, and Walter was doing some really long tones. That was really cool. That was definitely an unplanned moment [when] we were shooting off ideas, and listening to our engineer Kris Hilbert. He had great ideas and the toys for us to play around with.

Something I was curious of. I know in Between the Buried and Me the guitar players use Axe-FX modelers into power amps, right? Mesa/Boogie power amps?

Did you ever mess around with any modeling stuff and decide it wasn’t for you? Or have you always just been [using] all-tube amps all the time, since way back when?

No, I wouldn’t abandon the Sunn setup. But I’d be curious. I just like playing around with my knobs, especially in Trioscapes. There’s parts where I have a setting on my [Line6] DL4, my Line6, that is basically a reverse delay with the feedback turned all the way up. It just creates a loop from the second that you hit a note. When you mess around with the delay time it gets so warped. I love doing that kind of shit live too. As much as we’re into the super dense, composed pieces like I was saying, we love getting kind of gnarly. We love free jazz as much as we love prog rock. So it’s interesting to see what can happen during those times. And maybe that’s possible with the Axe-FX. I don’t really know. I’ve never played around with it. It kind of intimidates me, to be honest.

It actually seems like tube bass heads are starting to make a comeback. I don’t know if you’ve checked out any of the new ones, but Mesa has a new line of them. EBS, I think, has a new one. Fender has a new one that seems like it’s basically their new version of the Sunn 300T design.

Yeah, it’s 100% identical. I’ve seen it. I’m curious to hear how it sounds.

I’ve played through one recently and it sounded pretty good, but I haven’t played the original so I can’t really comment.

Right. I bet it’s, honestly, just about the same.

Have you messed around with any other new tube amp models?

When we go overseas I’m always at the mercy of whatever gear company or rental company we’re using. I usually end up with an SVT of some sort. All I request is that it’s a tube amp. I’ve done some playing overseas as well just going direct out of the Radial DI. We play with in-ear [monitors]. Sometimes it’s a matter of, if you’re over in Europe doing festivals where you’re flying every day or every other day, you can’t worry about bringing gear. The guys have their fractals, so as long as they have any sort of tube amp that they can use to power it, they’re good to go. We end up in those situations. We’re not a big enough band to be really picky and have backlines all over the place, so we just make it simple. Since we use in-ears we get it sounding okay. So I’ve used just the DI a little bit, but it’s not my favorite thing. I always miss having the big tube amp.

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Chris Alfano has written about music and toured in bands since print magazines and mp3.com were popular. Once in high-school he hacked a friend's QBasic stick figure fighting game to add a chiptune metal soundtrack. Random attractive people still give him high-fives about that.